This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On May 18, 2012, as Dan Harmon's cross-country flight hit the tarmac at LAX, a text message arrived from his agent: Harmon, the celebrated creator, head writer and showrunner of NBC's cult comedy Community, had been fired. Although there had been troubling signs -- Harmon often was dangerously late with scripts and led a lifestyle even his friends describe as highly dysfunctional -- the dismissal came without explanation from the network or studio Sony Pictures TV. But Harmon's initial reaction was one neither of anger nor of disappointment. "I remember feeling an odd sensation of relief, which I understand criminals feel when they get caught," he says. "Maybe my insecurity made me feel like I finally 'got caught' making a show sort of reviled by everyone paying for it, and my three-year crime spree was over." Distracted, Harmon left his iPad on the plane and would spend two hours seated on the airport's filthy linoleum floor waiting to retrieve it. "That's when I started to feel like I was the loser and the sucker, not them."
What followed was the most brazen attack by an employee on a television network since Charlie Sheen called his Two and a Half Men executives "maggots," "scoundrels" and "silly clowns": Harmon, now 40, published a bitter, passionate and widely read post on his Tumblr account, Dan Harmon Poops, in which he blasted not only the decision to force him out but also the means by which the network and studio did it. For months, lines like "NBC is not a credible source of All News Dan Harmon" were being repurposed by others in articles, blog entries and Twitter conversations as Harmon used his popular live comedy show and heavy social media presence to skewer everyone from NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt ("Darth Vader") to his Sony bosses ("They're not human").
But now, a year after being unceremoniously dumped, the irascible and often untamable showrunner has been asked back by the same executives he had railed against. In accepting their offer -- for which star Joel McHale and, to a lesser extent, Harmon's rabid fan base, are largely responsible -- he not only is being granted a rare second chance but also is providing perhaps the most tangible example yet of the power of a savvy creative as well as the forgiving nature of Hollywood. In the process, Harmon's little-watched critical darling -- fewer than 6 million viewers tune in -- has become the most captivating behind-the-scenes soap opera on TV, with its leader exalted, then killed off and now resurrected for what likely is a final act. By mid-June, he and partner Chris McKenna already had repopulated Community's writers room and begun work on the series' fifth season, which will preview July 21 at Comic-Con, where Harmon arguably is as big a draw as his cast.
However, for a journalist half-expecting an unhinged savant to appear before her for his first in-depth interview since rejoining Community, Harmon disappoints. On this June morning on the Paramount lot, where the quirky ensemble comedy about a study group at Greendale Community College is filmed, he is articulate, thoughtful and disarmingly candid. There are no signs of the rage-filled prankster who rallied his crew to chant expletives at co-star Chevy Chase during the series' third-season wrap party. Instead, Harmon calmly lays out the events of the past year with the type of frankness and wit that have charmed his 200,000-plus Twitter followers and those who consistently turn up for his Harmontown comedy shows. The only thing he can't offer is the definitive rationale for why he was replaced by season-four showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio and then later rehired, but he insists that's because he wasn't provided one. "They never took their hats off, held them over their hearts and said: 'This is why we did that. This is why we're undoing that,' " he says. Like his firing, news of his second chance was relayed to his agent, United Talent Agency's Jay Gassner.
To date, the narrative that has circulated -- particularly in the blogosphere, where Community's creator looms large -- positions Sony and NBC as bullying Goliath to Harmon's David, but some argue it's not entirely accurate. "He wants to be the white knight, the one standing up to the machine," says one show insider. Another informed source notes that despite Harmon's vehement claims to the contrary, Sony TV's co-programming chief Jamie Erlicht called Harmon's cell phone the evening he was fired, but Harmon never got back to him.
Harmon was forced out -- a move the studio had considered making earlier -- for a collection of reasons, including erratic behavior and an oddball leadership style, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. Many say he regularly showed up hours late to work and on one occasion outright disappeared to San Francisco for a few days surrounding the SF Sketchfest comedy festival. A tug of war between his perfectionist tendencies and his procrastinator nature led to table reads being delayed -- and, at least twice, canceled -- and periodic all-nighters. (Former staffers tell tales of songs on season three's musical episode being written the weekend before shooting, and the set of the same season's video game episode still being built the morning production was supposed to start.) There was his liquor intake, which was substantial enough for Harmon to label himself a "ninja of alcoholism," and his habit of falling asleep during the workday, which his staff documented on a Tumblr account called Sleepy Harmon. Some of the show's writers insisted they'd depart if Harmon remained for season four.
But not even Harmon's biggest detractors deny his gift for crafting deeply funny, nuanced comedy, with one exec noting that he can take a good writer's script and add several additional layers and subtle jokes. "He's got one of those one-in-a-billion minds," says McHale, echoing the term "genius" that many employ to describe Harmon. Adds McKenna, "The first time I saw Dan's work, part of my brain exploded." Critics agree, with the series under Harmon's stewardship regularly topping best-of lists and THR's Tim Goodman calling it and its creator "wildly creative to the point where normal ideas and boundaries seem to bore them."
When Community joined such shows as 30 Rock and The Office on NBC's 2009 schedule, that type of critical adoration and a loyal fan base were enough. What the network lacked in viewership was made up for in the accolades that allowed NBC to tout itself as a home for "smart" comedy. The studio found a way to cash in, too, inking a syndication deal with Comedy Central and a lucrative pact with Hulu, which multiple sources peg at $850,000 an episode. But over time, Community failed to broaden its reach, as Harmon focused more on pleasing bloggers with episodes featuring obscure movie references, stop-motion animation and a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Sony had hoped Port and Guarascio, who worked on the studio's Happy Endings, would be able to open up Community to new viewers. But without its auteur, the series was criticized by key media -- HitFix's Alan Sepinwall suggested the new showrunners had opted to "reverse-engineer the Harmon version of Community but couldn't quite manage without the missing ingredient of Harmon himself" --and shed 11 percent of its viewership. Months later, Harmon used some choice words (more on that later) to describe his distaste for his successors' work, noting in a Harmontown show that it was "very much like an impression -- and an unflattering one."
"I wanted to kill myself constantly constantly," says Harmon when asked to assess how he handled his first stint on Community. "It's not an exaggeration to say that every single day, I was the reason why everyone above me and everyone below me had a problem," he says, his paunchy midsection peeking out from under a wrinkled shirt. As he employed phrases like "it has to be like this or I quit" often, his disdain for authority became somewhat legendary. It's all such a handful that even though they rehired him and soon will begin promoting his return, Sony and NBC execs declined comment for this story.
Harmon, who has used "rude asshole" and "selfish baby" to describe himself, admits to friction in his writers room, where he had to learn how to be both a boss and a collaborator. The Marquette University dropout didn't rise through the ranks on other people's shows the way many showrunners do. Instead he was discovered when an early comic book he had worked on was optioned by Oliver Stone, and his résumé includes film work, web comedy and a stint on The Sarah Silverman Program. Writing with others initially was a challenge. "I came in going: 'Nobody's gonna tell me how to do this. I don't care how your system does it,' " he says. "And they had a very legitimate complaint, which was, 'We're being paid a huge amount of money to help you, and you're locking yourself in your office.' " He learned to be a better collaborator, but every script still required a Harmon rewrite -- to be "Harmonized," as Community's staff dubbed it -- to ensure the show remained in his unique voice. Comparisons to Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz are made often.
On set, Harmon regularly butted heads with Chase over the direction of the actor's character, Pierce Hawthorne, a standoff that led to Harmon famously playing Chase's angry voicemails during a Harmontown show. "[Chevy is] a befuddled old man, but he's also the guy who calls you to his trailer and shakes the script in the air and says: 'I'm not a befuddled old man! I'm sexy! I could be the star of this show! I'm not gay. You're writing me as if I'm gay,' " says Harmon, noting that he'd use Chase's outbursts as story fodder. "I'd say to him, 'Do you understand that what you're saying is funny and it makes an interesting character?' He would kind of blink and stare at me and go, 'Whatever, I just don't think it's funny.' " Disgruntled, the actor has since parted ways with the show. ("Dan and I are friends again," says Chase. "He's brilliant and can be very funny. The reason I wanted to do the show in the first place was Dan's writing. And I stand by that. But I have to go now, I'm very busy writing Community's Ice Capades Extravaganza.")
By May 2012, Harmon had heard rumblings that Sony had approached Port and Guarascio about running his show. Once the news became official, he refocused his energy on a forthcoming animated series, Rick and Morty, for Adult Swim, where execs praise his lack of filter. "Dan is real in a refreshing way, which makes him interesting and his art interesting," says Adult Swim executive vp Mike Lazzo. There also was a comedy that CBS passed on and a Fox project that never got off the ground. "Fox is graciously rolling my deal because I was so paralyzed by the idea of writing the next Community, which is what I wanted to do, that I was pooping the bed," he says, noting that the flurry of interest from rival nets sustained him. "Believe me, the thing that drives me the most is other people's approval." (He has other animation projects at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network via his Starburns shingle.)
But it was Harmon's other activity during the year away that best illustrates how brilliantly he has mobilized his fan base. Accompanied by his partner Jeff Davis, comedian girlfriend Erin McGathy (who lives with Harmon in their Los Feliz home) and a documentary filmmaker, he took Harmontown -- during which he plays Dungeons & Dragons and riffs on topics ranging from his struggles as a showrunner to his relationship with McGathy -- on the road. Hordes of superfans, or "Harmonites," turned up in every city, just as they did for Conan O'Brien when he went on the road after being dumped by NBC. Harmon's fans love Community, of course, but they also feel connected to him personally because, as he's said, he "blogs or tweets every time he wipes his butt, hugs his cat or hurts his girlfriend."
During that period, Harmon refrained from watching "new Community" and had no interaction with the cast. "I just assumed that everybody was having a big picnic without me and swapping stories about how hard it was when I was around," he says. Harmon later would learn that the actors, led by McHale, quietly were plotting to bring him back. "The show is in Dan's brain, and he's by far the only person that can do it," says McHale. Suggest to Harmon that his successors were all but set up to fail, and he shrugs: "It said 'no-win situation' at the top of the contract, and they signed it anyway," he says. (Port and Guarascio respond in a statement: "We enjoyed our time on Community, and we're thrilled it was picked up for a fifth season. We wish nothing but the best for the show going forward. It obviously could not be in better hands.")
In early May, Harmon got word via UTA's Gassner that Sony was entertaining the idea of asking him back. McHale reached out, too, to see whether he could have Harmon's permission to go to bat for his return. Harmon says he told his star what he had told his agent: "I'm not going to say yes to Sony so that they can go to NBC and say Dan wants to come back and have NBC dump me again. But if they can figure out what they want, I love my show, and I'm open to coming back." According to two sources, Sony execs recognized not only that the show had faltered without Harmon but also that he would be better equipped to handle a truncated season of 13 episodes. He also would bring with him McKenna, who has his respect and comedic sensibility. Ultimately, though, the determining factor for the studio -- and the primary reason NBC agreed -- was to appease McHale.
"Creatively speaking at least, his return kind of seems like the television universe righting itself," says the show's former co-showrunner Neil Goldman. "Dan is Community, and Community is Dan. Greendale is some weird manifestation of whatever the hell goes on in his one-of-a-kind brain, and each of those characters represents a different element of his psyche." Back in the writers room, Harmon is fully aware -- and ridden with anxiety -- that he's opening himself up to sky-high expectations. "Dan's untouchable right now, and if he were to go: 'Screw you. You fired me. I'm moving on,' he'd be able to keep that status," says his friend and former writing partner Rob Schrab. "But the very ballsy, Dan Harmon thing to do was to say, 'I'm going to go back and see this thing through.' "
Harmon has been back on the job for a matter of days and already, he says, he's a week behind schedule. "The feeling is familiar and delicious," he quips, noting that his first episode will be a palate cleanser, designed to reacquaint Community viewers with the characters' humanity. "I don't mean that we tasted anything bad," he says. "I just mean that because we tasted something different, there needs to be a reset." On a personal level, he's still making sense of the unprecedented chain of events, with his emotions ping-ponging between excitement and outrage. "Have you ever had a lover that breaks up with you for a year and then doesn't really tell you why, says that they're not ready for a relationship to make you feel better about getting dumped, and then you see them on Instagram hanging out at the same restaurants?" he says, adding: "When that person comes back and says, 'I miss you, I miss the way your hair smells,' how do you react to that? There's a slight feeling of vindication, but there's also a lot of 'Screw you.' "
Two days after speaking with this reporter, he acted on the latter feeling. During a Harmontown show at Hollywood's Nerdist Theater, he compared watching season four -- which he needed to do to prepare for season five -- to "being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach." The comments didn't sit well with NBC's Greenblatt and many involved with the show. The following day, Harmon was back in mea culpa mode, writing on his Tumblr: "I really need to do this whole 'saying things and thinking about other people' cycle in a different order at some point."
Asked about his recurring foot-in-mouth disease, Harmon grows serious. "I've always needed to express myself to strangers in order to feel OK about myself," he begins. But the desire -- need, even -- to air his feelings and frustrations, often at the expense of others, runs deeper: "If I'm feeling pain inside, I say what I'm feeling; and when I say it in the way that I say it, it makes people laugh, and then that makes the pain go away," he adds. "So whether it's through blogging or talking into a microphone, it's the thing that keeps me sane. I really look at it as a form of therapy."
After the latest experience, Harmon insists he has learned his lesson and won't be talking about work during Harmontown anymore, if for no other reason than he's hoping the stories about him in the coming months are focused not on controversy but on triumph. "I want to astound people with a season five that makes an unbeatable argument for a sixth season," he says. "I want the headlines to say, 'Holy crap, Dan Harmon pulled it off.' "